Human History at Oldupai Gorge

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Around 30,000 years ago, intense geological activity combined with millennia of erosion exposed the area now known as Oldupai Gorge (once erroneously called “Olduvai Gorge”). Fast forward to July 1959, and paleoanthropologist Mary Leakey finally grasped the significance of what was exposed there when she stumbled upon an odd-looking skull lying in the dirt.

Fossils dating back to the dawn of mankind trace our history to Oldupai Gorge in the heart of Africa. The findings of Mary Leakey and her husband Louis show some of mankind’s earliest documented ancestors, who existed over a million years before the discovery of stone tools. This discovery has led to decades of intense study, which has helped shed light on the development of humans as we evolved over millions of years.

Many anthropologists and archaeologists theorize that all of Homo sapiens originated from Africa, the Mother Continent, some millions of years ago thanks to the findings at sites like Oldupai.

Oldupai Gorge and Ngorongoro Crater as the “Cradle of Mankind”

Oldupai Gorge is found in Ngorongoro Crater, a caldera that formed when a massive volcano collapsed upon itself.

To the southwest, about halfway to Lake Eyasi, lies Laetoli. Here, Mary Leakey discovered and excavated some of the earliest evidence of upright-walking hominids found on the planet. 3.7 million years ago, early Australopithecus afarensis hominids, of a similar species to “Lucy,” stepped in a mixture of volcanic ash and mud. This mixture hardened, preserving footprints later buried under millions of years of sediment and then uncovered.

From this evidence, the Leakeys and others were able to essentially reconstruct the development of mankind in the area over millions of years. Australopithecus remains lead to Zinjanthropus, the type of proto-human that Mary Leaker first discovered in Oldupai. There is also evidence of Homo habilis, who made some of the earliest stone tools found in Oldupai’s 1.8 million to 1.6 million year old deposits. From there, our brain sizes increased as we evolved into the more adept Homo sapiens, spreading knowledge of stone tools and early farming techniques as we became increasingly nomadic.

See Some of the Earliest Signs of Humanity at the Oldupai Museum

At the Oldupai Museum in the Ngorongoro Crater, you can find many fascinating exhibits documenting historic archeological finds. A set of the Laetoli footprints can be found based on an imprint mold taken just a few miles south. Evidence of animal remains, the early ones gnawed upon and the later ones bearing clear stone tool cut marks, can also be found.

The museum also documents Information on early human civilization as well as the later colonization of the Crater by the Masai people. Nearby, you can find a cultural Boma that can immerse you in the life of the Masai people. Handmade souvenirs bearing traditional art and patterns are available. There is also a lecture space, public toilets and refreshments. Guided tours are available into the crater or into the Oldupai Gorge itself.

You can see all of these sights on a trip to the Ngorongoro Crater — and discover the beginnings of humankind as we know it — when you book a Tanzania safari tour package today.

Jill Liphart for Roho Ya Chui, Travel Africa